Community Perceptions and Forest Fire Mitigation

Academic project; author

Goals:

Large-scale disaster events in recent years have accelerated an interest within hazards research in the social contributions to disaster vulnerability in North America. This study examined the forested municipality of Kelowna, British Columbia, which was significantly impacted by wildfire in August 2003.

The main goals of the study were:

  1. to provide a deeper understanding of the complex ways in which residents prioritized forest health and community safety as they responded to proposed revisions to forest fire mitigation methods; and
  2. to explore the ways in which community policies for ecological sustainability and disaster mitigation could be enriched by this breadth of perspectives.

Method:

In order to assess community reactions to forest fire mitigation and forestry management in Kelowna, residents’ views contained within provincial and municipal documents, scholarly literature and popular press around the 2003 fires were analysed. In-depth interviews were then conducted with Kelowna residents and representatives from BC Parks, the Regional District of Central Okanagan, and Kelowna’s urban forestry and fire departments. Further insights were gained by analysing photos taken by community members that documented both the immediate aftermath of the fire as well as residents’ impressions of Kelowna’s forests several years later (in 2008).

Discourse analysis was employed to explore the many ways in which residents’ personal interpretations of urban natural areas connect to larger themes of community sustainability and hazard risk. For example, forest fire can be interpreted from within a range of views – as an extremely damaging force to lives and property, as a vital factor in maintaining ecosystem health, or possibly both – depending on the worldview through which fires are understood.

Results/Knowledge Gained:

Study participants presented three general perspectives about Kelowna’s forests: forests as hazardous, forests as instrumentally valuable, and forests as intrinsically valuable-each of which influenced residents’ reactions to Kelowna’s fire mitigation policies. A better understanding of residents’ varied perceptions of urban forests could help officials to effectively harness other potential sources of public support for mitigation efforts. For example, the potential for controlled burns to also benefit overall forest ecosystem health could be emphasized.

There are persistent challenges in educating Kelowna residents about the risks involved with living in a dry, forested environment, while at the same time addressing a perceived futility among some residents about individual mitigation efforts in the face of large-scale fires. Public education programs could be enhanced by:

  1. providing increased public outreach prior to perceived risky mitigation practices such as controlled burns, and
  2. by providing more workshops to teach residents about appropriate mitigation methods in ways that address concerns about fire risk and the maintenance of local forests.

There is a need for greater communication and trust-building between forest fire mitigation agencies and community residents. A process of adaptive management that involves residents may help to foster increased trust between forestry agencies and other community members, while more fully reflecting the range of understandings of what constitutes the natural or preferred state of local landscapes.